Few things are as important in a restaurant's success as finding a level of consistency — both in the quality of its cuisine and in the service it offers.
Barrio, the self-described “neighborhood Spanish kitchen” operated in downtown Bend by food-cart owners Steven Draheim and Joel Cordes, appears to have found its stride after experiencing some ups and downs in its three months of existence.
When I visited the former Marz and Gatsby's space on Minnesota Avenue last week, once each for dinner and lunch, I was very pleased with the overall taste and value of the cafe.
That was in sharp contrast to my disappointment with the restaurant shortly after it opened in March ... and to comments I received in June from one Bend resident who travels frequently to Barcelona on business. “Nice try,” he told me. “But they don't know how to make paella, cook rice, or even know what Spanish people actually eat.”
Based upon my recent experiences, I beg to differ, at least on the paella and rice.
Draheim — a former head chef at Kokanee Cafe who became known in Bend for his Soupçon food cart after a spell in Tucson, Ariz. — acknowledged Barrio's learning curve. In fact, he said, the cafe had recently made some changes in cooking methods to answer its critics.
“When Joel and I just had the food carts (Cordes ran El Sancho), we were perceived as outsiders, and people loved us for that,” he said. “Now we've changed hats, and we are one of 'them.' We have to step up.”
Paella for dinner
Paella (pronounced “pah-AY-ya”) is a classic Spanish dish, especially identified with the Mediterranean coastal state of Valencia. While there are several variations, it is typically a rice-based casserole of various meats and vegetables.
Barrio offers meat (chicken and chorizo sausage), seafood (shrimp, squid and clams in the shell) and vegetarian versions.
On my recent evening visit, a friend and I tackled the “paella mixta,” combining meat and seafood. Immediately, I liked the rice. Where once it had been unpleasantly pasty, it was now appropriately fluffy and blended with a mildly spicy tomato sauce. The meats and seafood were all perfectly cooked, and the accompanying slices of grilled bruschetta were a nice complement.
We shared several other dishes, beginning with a house salad. A variety of local greens, including leaf lettuce and baby spinach, were tossed with radishes, thinly sliced green apples and crumbled feta cheese, and dressed with a light vinaigrette.
We had two vegetable side dishes. Cauliflower tagine was curried and roasted with a tomato confit, while seasoned broccoli was chargrilled with rosemary butter and served with a roasted red-pepper slaw.
But my friend mainly raved about the Imperial Ranch lamb chops, a colorfully designed dish that we selected from a blackboard of daily specials. Three tender grilled chops, sprinkled with fresh parsley and feta, were served with mini-cobs of fresh corn on a bed of potato hash, sauteed in olive oil. The entire meal was excellent.
Tacos for lunch
At a subsequent lunch, my regular dining companion and I shared three other dishes — a salad, tacos and a torta, or “Mexican sandwich.”
Of the trio, our favorite was the taco plate, which featured soft corn tortillas with three different, juicy fillings. Pork carnitas, grilled snapper and spicy vegetarian mushroom were all wonderful in their own right; I honestly didn't have a favorite among the three.
The 3 Sisters Salad blended local lettuces with black beans and corn, sliced zucchini and radishes, pumpkin seeds, fresh basil and white cotija cheese. I liked this more than my companion, who said she didn't care for the light jalapeno dressing.
The torta, served on a fresh Kaiser-style bun, is something made daily at Barrio, although the filling often changes. On this day, the main ingredient was chicken, blended into a salad with guacamole, cream and a savory escabeche marinade. I found it to be a nice change of pace from everyday deli sandwiches.
Service and mood
Service at both of my recent meals was outstanding. That was especially true on my dinner visit, when the restaurant was so packed that overflow diners were being seated at the bar or asked to share a tall central table.
In spite of the hubbub, the charming service team was quick to take and accurately deliver orders, with additional kudos to a kitchen that kept up on production.
Although the Spanish word “barrio” has taken on an inner-city connotation in many American urban centers, its true definition is simply “neighborhood.” That is how it is intended at this small restaurant, where the focus is on Spanish-style home cooking.
The ambience reflects that sense of community. Tables line both walls, while diners may share space at the central table. Large mirrors on the east wall magnify the space. A trio of classic bicycles, mounted high above the six-seat bar, suggests an urban environment.
“This has a lot of flavor,” said my dinner companion, who was visiting from overseas and seeing Barrio for the first time. “I love that they are not playing it too safe. They could have something good going if they can be consistent.”
Ah, yes, there's that word again.
Seats are still available for a five-course Farm to Fork Dinner on July 21 at Fields Farm, celebrating the local food movement. Chef TR McCrystal of Jen's Garden will prepare grass-fed beef from the Dancing Cow Farm; drinks will be provided by Maragas Winery and 10 Barrel Brewing Company. Sponsored by the Bank of the Cascades, the meal will begin at 5 p.m., and tickets cost $75 by check or $85 by credit card. 61915 Pettigrew Road, Bend; 503-473-3952, www.farmtoforkevents.com.